This year's brutal summer sun is hammering hard on our energy bills, but some homeowners are fighting back.
Al Solberg of Arlington is one of the early adapters of a new air conditioning/heating unit powered by photovoltaic solar panels.
Solberg said he was able to make the investment in his eight-panel solar air conditioning/heating system helped by a hefty 30 percent federal tax credit on cost and installation. He also needed a new A/C unit for his 2,200-square-foot home.
"I'm saving about half on my electric bills," said Solberg, who had his system installed last August. "My water bill is more."
This is Solberg's second effort to go solar. When he built his Arlington home in 1978, he was an early adapter of solar water heating panels.
"I built the house for a solar system with a southern orientation for the roof and the right pitch, but I took it down a few years later after TXU did a study on it and it showed it wasn't doing much," he said. "With that system I had to check for leaks all the time. This new system is totally maintenance free."
Included in his new array are sensors that give Solberg up-to-date information on how the system is operating that he can track from a website on his computer.
"I noticed in the early morning I wasn't getting my best results, so I trimmed some trees," he said. "Now I have a true bell curve on production."
Because of tree shade, roof orientation and pitch, not all homes will be good candidates for the solar AC units, which are made by Lennox, said Todd Truly, sales manager with Stark Service Co. in Fort Worth, which installed Solberg's unit.
"Around 20 percent of houses qualify for solar or are willing to invest in it," Truly said. "But as the prices come down and the incentives increase, we're going to see the market grow."
Stark is offering a deal of one free solar panel for homeowners who purchase the unit, which is called SunSource Home Energy System. No other panels are required to take advantage of the deal, which runs until October.
"We can put one panel on now and add more later. The system takes up to 15 panels," he said. "That flexibility allows more people to be involved in solar on a smaller basis than with a full array."
The Lennox unit runs between $9,000 and $15,000 and is eligible for a federal tax credit of $500, Truly said.
The solar panels, which are 3 feet by 6 feet, cost between $4,000 and $30,000 before the 30 percent tax credit, depending on how many panels the homeowner wants to install.
Lennox is also running a, $1,100 rebate through Aug. 26 on its SunSource system, plus an additional $300 rebate on a four-pack solar module, said Larry Taylor, owner of AirRite Indoor Environment Solutions in Fort Worth.
"For our market it's a very attractive product," Taylor said. "But it's going to take consumer awareness to sell it."
Taylor said his company has installed 30 of the solar-ready units over the past year, but not one has yet wanted to buy the solar panels to go with it.
"People are not comfortable with the economy," he said. "There are a lot of incentives, but if you don't have the cash, it doesn't matter."
With the savings on electric usage, the tax credits and in some cases the sale of unused power back to the electric company, the system can typically pay for itself within eight to 12 years, Truly said.
The state doesn't require electric retailers to pay for energy generated by homes and returned to the grid, but some companies will pay homeowners for it. TXU will pay 7.5 cents per kilowatt for home-generated power; Green Mountain will buy back power at 11.3 cents per kilowatt for the first 500 kilowatts, then 5.6 cents per kilowatt for any additional kilowatts generated.
You must be customers of those retailers to get their payback.
Solberg said he gets small quarterly checks of $10 to $20 from TXU for the extra power he generates.
"They aren't much, but how often does a power company send you a check?" he said.
He said he plans to continue harnessing the sun by adding more panels to his house soon. Then Solberg plans to buy an electric car.
Teresa McUsic's column appears Fridays.